Words: MK Quinlan | Principal Photography: Erik Tanner
Georgia-born designer Clay Reeves’s collection of vintage Hawaiian shirts hang out at New York's Black Crescent bar, laying in wait for Aloha Mondays, his new vintage flash sale.
It started out as an impulse purchase - a second-hand Hawaiian shirt that became a staple of Clay Reeves’s year-round dress. A native Georgian and the designer behind Clay + Bros, Clay soon found himself on trips to Las Vegas, New York, and California, sifting through short-sleeve shirt racks at local thrift stores on the hunt for floral. “The print is always the highest on my list of priorities,” Clay says. “I go for the big florals from the 70s. Kind of Magnum P.I.-ish.”
Clay is 6’5” and a size XL, so when, a year or so into his new sartorial kick he started bringing home vintage Hawaiian shirts in size small, it was clear he’d crossed over from casual shopper to collector. “I couldn’t help it,” he says. “It was like an Easter egg hunt for me.”
Beginning in July, Clay + Bros will be selling one shirt from Clay’s 50+ collection every week in what he’s dubbing Aloha Mondays. “Everyone complains about Mondays,” Clay says. “I thought it’d be nice to get a Hawaiian shirt in your inbox.” Head to his website and sign up for Clay + Bros. emails to be among the recipients.
Top: Clay Reeves lets a little Hawaii peek out in Scotland. Above: From the Aloha! Mondays collection: a Reyn Spooner perched next to another shirt Clay found in Vegas.
The shirt sale is the latest in what has been a giant experiment since the beginning. With no formal design experience, Clay has managed to build the Clay + Bros. brand based strictly on his bright ideas and a lot of internet research. “I look at this whole thing like a grand art project,” he says. He dreamed up his popular really simple sandals while working full-time at an industrial recycling plant outside of Atlanta. His affinity for Hawaiian shirts is, in part, due to their own grassroots beginnings. “Most clothing trends happen because some designer decided it would be interesting,” Clay says. “Hawaiian shirts weren’t started by a trendsetter.”
First known as Aloha shirts, Hawaiian shirts were introduced in Waikiki in the 1930s and quickly became the uniform of choice for native islanders looking to shake the puritanical (and hot as hell) dress made standard by the island’s missionaries. Shirts from 1930s through the 50s—considered the shirt’s golden age by collectors—were wildly colorful and originally constructed of tapa cloth, fabric made out of the bark of the local Wauke tree. Local surfers and tourists were the shirt’s first adopters. Off-duty American G.I.s followed.
Top: Elvis' Blue Hawaii album cover, Tom Selleck as Magnum, P.I.. Bottom: Shirts found in Los Angeles (on the left, the first Clay ever purchased) hang at the Black Crescent bar in New York City.
The end of World War II combined with cheaper, quicker travel to America’s new island state meant folks were flocking to Hawaii in troves in the 1950s. If you weren’t a smoker (ashtrays from the island were the era’s equivalent to today’s duty-free shot glass), an Aloha shirt was likely your souvenir of choice.
Weekend barbecues and pool parties on the West Coast were soon synonymous with men dressed Hawaiian-style. Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and John Wayne were fans. “The shirts got big in Hollywood,” Clay says. “Folks started seeing them on the screen in the 60s and they took off.” Elvis’s Blue Hawaii album cover was no doubt a turning point for the trend.
Selects from the collection. Far left: another Reyn Spooner in a vintage University of Hawaii print.
Clay’s collection includes shirts from top mid-century Hawaiian shirt brands like Reyn Spooner and date from between the 1960s and the 1980s. “The collars on the shirts from the 40s and 50s are huge,” Clay says. “I stay away from that.” Coconut buttons and horizontal buttonholes are other signs that you’ve got a Hawaiian shirt from the early years, which, though not en vogue with Clay, make hard core collectors salivate. Early shirt manufacturers like Kahala, Kamekameha, Watumalls, and Poi Pounder Togs are some of the most collectible and have sold upwards of $1,000.
Shirts made of rayon are Clay’s preference because they’re more comfortable in the summer heat and have a nicer drape. “My all-time favorite is probably a rayon one from the late 60s that actually has Hawaiian shirts printed on it. Hawaiian on Hawaiian.”
Clay's rules for wear:
1. Avoid the unbuttoned-over-a-wife-beater thing (it didn’t look good on Ace Ventura or Nicholas Cage in Raising Arizona).
2. Never, ever tuck your Hawaiian shirt in.
3. Don't show too much leg. Clay wears his over jeans, which he recommends as a way to sidestep going full Margaritaville cruise-ship-creeper. “I’m a big guy,” Clay says. “When I wear them with shorts I look like I don’t have any clothes on.”
4. Wear them year round. Clay pairs his eponymous sandals with the shirts in the summer, cowboy boots when there’s a nip in the air. “It’s never too cold for them. Put a jacket on top of them and let a little Hawaii peek out.”
This story is dedicated to the memory of Oakleaf & Acorn's John Rich, a great pal of both The Love List and Clay + Bros. and a core member of Atlanta's creative community.